04 · 26 · 21

The Strangeness of Panic-Esoteric Cinema

By: Rafael Aviña

Perhaps the greatest cultural impact of the year 1968 can be found in reviews of Alejandro Jodorowsky´s Fandy y Lis (1967) in both the XI Review, published by the Roble Cinema, and the then famous Acapulco Review. The film, which starred Sergio Kleiner and the young actress/singer Diana Mariscal and was produced by Roberto Viskin and Juan López Moctezuma, offered a stark contrast to the Mexican cinema being produced at that time. An extravagant, excessive, disturbing story that was anything but solemn, it was inspired by a play written by Fernando Arrabal and featured beautiful black and white photography by Antonio Reynoso and Rafael Corkidi.

Fando y Lis (1967, dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky)

Fando y Lis (1967, dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky)

The film was widely rejected at the time, in spite of the participation of figures like: Juan José Arreola and Maria Teresa Rivas; the ill-fated filmmakers Luis Urías, Rene Rebetez and Pablo Leder and the famous theatre director Julio Castillo. Even personalities like Tamara Garina, Tina French, Carlos Savage, Corkidi or Jodorowsky himself couldn´t change the film´s reception. Fando y Lis came out at the same time as Mike Nichols´ The Graduate; Jean-Luc Godard´s Pierrot le fou; Manuel Michel´s Patsy mi amor; Pier Paolo Passolini´s Oedipus Rex, o Roman Polanski´s Rosemary´s Baby. Polanksi himself was featured with his wife Sharon Tate in the aforementioned Acapulco Review.

Fando y Lis, along with three other films from 1969, offer important clues to the intellectual breakdown of the moment: Raúl Kamffer´s Mictláno la casa de los que ya no son; Anticlimax, directed by the artist and filmmakers Gelsen Gas and written by Luis Urias, and Jodorowsky´s El Topo. This rupture had its antecedents in two film genres: firstly in the established experimental Mexican cinema, and secondly in a strange, new trend known as panic or esoteric cinema, both of which were led by Jodorowsky.

These four films would give rise to this breakthrough new cinematic genre, with its erotic, impenetrable and critical elements. The mantle would be taken on by filmmakers like Alfredo Joskowicz in Crates (1970); Rafael Corkidi in Ángeles y querubines (1971), or Auaundar Anapu in Pafnucio Santo (1976) and Deseos (1977). In turn by Juan Castillo in Apolinar (1971); Juan López Moctezuma in La mansion de la locura (1971) and Alucarda (1975), as well as by Pablo Leder, José Antonio Alcaraz and Luis Urías, among others. All of the aforementioned films are, without exception, works of extreme, exaggerated visual imaginations.

The panic curve, or Panic Group, with its surreal and enigmatic elements, emerged around 1962 in Paris. It was a school of thought or artistic inclination created by Jodorowsky and the artists and writers Olivier O. Olivier, Jacques Sternberg, Fernando Arrabal and Roland Topor (co-writer of The Wild Planet) and was centred around three essential tenets: terror, humour and simultaneity. That is to say that the idea was to shock the viewer with a kind of new artistic expression in which horror did not rule out humour and where apparently contradictory elements were mixed: light and shadow; beauty and ugliness; hate and love; destruction and construction.

El topo (1970, dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky)

El topo (1970, dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky)

Jodorowsky himself stars in the dreamlike El Topo as a gunman in a hat, raincoat and black leather boots who advances through an inclement desert on horseback carrying an umbrella and a little naked boy (his own son Brontis). Two sequences from the film perfectly illustrate the idea of panic cinema. In the first, El Topo arrives at a town littered with corpses and blood. A survivor cries out: “Kill me, for mercy” and El Topo gives his son the gun, so that he can execute the man. Later, they run into three bandits, who El Topo violently kills. From a terrible scene of brutality and murder we shift immediately to one of ironic, exalted humour – music included – returning once again to an exaggerated violence. This is the simultaneity that was written into the genre.

Ángeles y querubines, written by the poet Carlos Illescas and photographed by Corkidi himself, is another extravagant, disturbing example of a surrealist-gothic-panic style. In this mystical, allegorical vampire story, Ana Luisa Peluffo embodies the Demon, Helena Rojo is Temptation, Jaime Humberto Robles is an Angel and the veteran David Silva is Lucifer. Silva had already become a cult actor in this esoteric, strange and fascinating genre thanks to Alucarda, la hija de las tinieblas and La mansion de la locura, both directed by Juan López Moctezuma – a daring counterpart to Jodorowsky who created an intriguing and overwhelming erotic/horror cinema. The first film was based on a novel by Sheridan Le Fanu; the second on a story by Edgar Allen Poe.

Alucarda, la hija de las tinieblas (1977, dir. Juan López Moctezuma)

Alucarda, la hija de las tinieblas (1977, dir. Juan López Moctezuma)

Silva would, in turn, go on to make his own esoteric-panic film Pubertinaje in 1971, based on a novel by Pablo Leder. This unfinished, mutilated film includes three episodes: Una cena de Navidad (Leder); Juego de espejos (Alcaraz) and Tetraedro (Luís Urías), but that was released in 1978 with just the first two in-tact. Then came Jodorowsky´s La montaña sagrada, which had a troubled shoot, irritated the Catholic Church and ended up being censored until 1975.

Corkidi´s confronting images speak for themselves: naked boys and girls accompanied by a mutilated man; a group of Grenadiers at La Merced with the corpses of skinned dogs on their rifles, instead of bayonets; toads dressed as Aztecs and others as Spaniards staging the conquest of Mexico, or hundreds of plaster models of Christ with their genitals covered. Without a doubt, panic and esoteric cinema was a moment of inward-looking and extreme experimentation, whose peak was found in the counter-culturalism of the sixties and seventies.